Kirie Pedersen

HONORED GUESTS

     I called that particular morning because I ran out of vodka. I decided to pilfer my husband's dope stash to keep me going until I could get to the liquor store. I didn't much like marijuana. It made me uneasy and sleepy, but I needed to be high to start my day. In the middle of Danny's stash box was something wrapped in layers of tissue. Perhaps it was some special drug I had not yet tried. I unwrapped it.
     It was a picture of Camille. My sister. She was naked. She was smiling at the photographer. My husband.

- - - - - -

     I consumed my child-bearing years dropping in and out of college and relationships, thinking I could always have kids later; plenty of time. Another part of me thought I wasn't good enough to have kids, that I might taint them. I resented Camille because she could drink and drug more and better than I—and because she remained free. "If you sleep with a different guy every day," she said, "you don't get attached. Then you don't get hurt." She traveled around the world to (in my mind) glamorous places: Accra, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam.
She had a dealer and a boyfriend in every town.
     I ended up a caregiver anyway. I'm raising Sahari but Sahari isn't mine. She is intelligent, beautiful, kind, fun, humorous, loving; I could tell all that even when she was four and quite damaged, and her parents left her with me for an evening and just never came back. I raise Sahari just as our grandfather ended up raising my sister and me. It's something you sort of pass on.
     Our mother: Pregnant with my sister, she went blind. After Camille was born she quit taking her meds—suicide by default. When I asked our grandfather about her, just once, he walked out of the room.
     "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.

- - - - - -

     My husband Danny was a rock musician. He also sold drugs. He was attracted to criminal activities: guns, violence, and murder; and women were attracted to Danny. From his early teens Danny smoked marijuana every day, all day. He was somewhat effeminate, something I've noticed in men who are chronic marijuana smokers. Sometimes he looked like a very beautiful, tall girl. Before the drugs caught up with him and he became somewhat yellow and skeletal, he worked occasionally as a model and actor. He even sang in musicals. He had perfect pitch and knew how to move on a stage.
     I went into the marriage to save Danny, but I was the one who fell. I did not tell Danny about finding Camille's picture in his stash box, but just before I went to rehab, he began to bring home books about men who murdered women. Halfway through inpatient I managed to con a one-night home pass. I ran through the house calling Danny's name. Danny wasn't around, but he left one of these books beside the bed. It was about a man whose wife checked into rehab and he killed her. The book sat on a pillow with a knife stabbed into it. The details of the killing were marked with a piece of paper. It was a note from a friend of mine thanking Danny for their wonderful night.
     In case I still didn't get the idea, my pills and booze were lined up along the counters just as I'd left them.
     "I should probably be there with you," Danny said when I dialed his cell. "But I'd rather party. I'm not ready to stop."
     I drove back to rehab. After a month without driving, I was afraid of the power of the car, a gutless little Honda Civic. The wheel tilted right, left, nowhere, and plunged through the night. My mind clouded over. I screamed out my rage and pain about losing Danny. I believed him the best thing in my life. Then I screamed louder because if I completed this journey back to rehab and to whatever lay beyond it, I could no longer numb my pain.
     Although I continued to grip the wheel, I no longer had any idea where I was or where I was going. The world stretched too vastly around me. I was afraid of the car, afraid of the freeway, afraid of the other cars. Just afraid.
     From out of nowhere a flock of motorcycles appeared. There might have been fifty or a hundred. The men on the bikes wore denim or leather jackets emblazoned with insignia, high boots of black or brown, and as they reached my battered Civic, where I puttered along under the speed limit because I was lost and blank—totally blank—the flank of bikes broke like waves. Half were in front of me and half behind, and the signal lights on their bikes blinked and I veered off the exit ramp with them.
    "Alky Angels," it said on their jackets. When I came back into focus, I was in the parking lot behind the rehab hospital.

- - - - - -

     A year later I returned once again to the house I had shared with Danny. I arrived around midnight. I still kept druggie hours. To me, midnight was morning. I felt most safe if I stayed awake all night and slept during the day. Sometimes I woke up to the sound of my own cries, tears streaming down my face. I also knew if Danny knew I was coming he might hide.
     "I need money," I said. "You have the house. I don't have anything." Danny still lived in the house we had purchased, and he rented rooms to students from the nearby university. Surprisingly, he promised to give me money in the morning. I thought I was still in love with him. My friend Raymundo had cut off all my hair the night before, leaving tendrils here and there, and I wore a floor-length, vintage black velvet coat as if it could protect me. Danny made coffee in an espresso pot. The hot coffee streamed out in a wide arc onto the floor. Danny stared at it.
     "That's never happened before," he said. We sat up most of the night on a couch in what used to be our bedroom. The room was frosted with about a quarter inch of dog hair, and the bed loomed at the other end of the room. Danny had hung mirrors on three sides of the bed and even on the ceiling. A television perched on a platform at the foot of the bed. I imagined Danny making love as he stared into the mirror that formed the headboard.
     "Do you want to sleep here?" Danny said. I felt his shadow, the memory of him printed inside me. Even if I left for good reason, it was so long since I was with him, I couldn't remember what it was like.
     "Sleeping with you was my only comfort toward the end," I said. I didn't mean making love. I meant the way his long body curved around my small body. The last night we slept together, I did not tell him about the rehab hospital or that I planned to leave in the morning. He held up an empty vodka bottle.
     "Don't you think we're drinking too much?" he said. I laughed because Danny hadn't had a drop of what was in that bottle, and it hadn't even lasted me the afternoon.
     Then I cried and said, "Ya no puedo tomar." I couldn't bear to say it in English. "Non posso più bere." Danny held me.
     "If anyone can do it, you can," he said. "You're strong."
     "Do you mean sleep together?" I asked.
     "Making love with you now would be like weeding a garden completely and then taking a handful of seeds and just tossing them down at random," Danny said. As he sat beside me on the couch, Danny had been smoking joint after joint. "I mean do you want to sleep here or downstairs?"
     I said I wasn't tired, so he told me a story.
     "I was up all night with one of the renters, and early in the morning he said he was a fag, and I pulled out my knife and held him at knifepoint for the rest of the night."
     "What did you do in the morning?"
     "I gave him notice."
     "I have a lot of gay friends."
     "What do you do with them?"
     "We go out dancing."
     Danny made up a bed in the downstairs bedroom. It had been the guest room when we were married. My sister slept there when she visited. Danny unplugged his radio from beside the bed upstairs.
     "So you will have music," he said. He fussed around until he found a station he liked. I nodded, wanting him to leave. I never slept with the radio on.
     A few hours later, when I woke him, Danny was grouchy. I drove him to the bank, and he gave me some money.
     "Can I drive your car?" he said. I had an old Porsche 914 roadster. It was the same age he was. "Just up the alley."
     I shook my head. When I leaned over to hug him good-bye, he stuck his tongue into my mouth. It tasted like stale glue.

- - - - - -

     Sahari and I live in a little trailer behind my grandfather's house. I'm grateful Danny and I didn't have children. I would like to meet someone nice, have a child of my own, but I'm finding, for me anyway, nice guys and babies don't just happen all that easily. I do have my painting, though. I have this ability to sense what color a room should be and keep on mixing and mixing the paint until it is just the right shade. I have the patience to keep trying. And Sahari can come with me, so she has a place to go after school.
     I picked up Sahari from my sister's house in Portland. Camille wasn't drinking and drugging anymore either, and she and Sahari were close. I didn't tell my sister about going to Danny's. After we got home, though, I thought I better go to my support group. My grandfather had just returned from a Buddhist retreat in Vancouver. I asked his girlfriend if she could take care of Sahari for a while. Just an hour. I really don't like lugging Sahari along to my support group, although it isn't the worst thing she could be exposed to or even has been exposed to before her parents dropped her with me.
     Marilyn, my grandfather's girlfriend, said, "Your grandfather and I have to shop." I got that she didn't really want Sahari, even for an hour. I looked at my grandmother, and Marilyn looked at him like she could slice him with her eyes.
     At the last minute, though, my grandfather relented. Like my sister, he really loves Sahari. She's a cute kid.
     "Sure, we'll keep her," he said. He looked at Marilyn. "We can shop tomorrow."
     "There's nothing here to eat," she said. "Nothing."
     When I arrived at the support group, all I could see were men. They milled around outside the rehab hospital in the dusk, smoking cigarettes, greeting each other.
     "Hey," they said. "How's it going?" As if to hide the bulk of their bodies, they swayed a little on their feet. I was prepared to flee. I'd made a mistake; it was men's night. Then I saw a slim woman in an oversized but quite good wool coat. She had a halfway decent haircut for around here, and a pretty, although gaunt, face. She slipped into the room.
     One of the faces came into focus. "Elisa," the man said as if he'd spent the entire evening waiting just for me.
     "Al?"
     "Bill. But Al's close enough," he said, as if the mistake was his for having the wrong name. "Why are you at White Slippers?"
     "That's the name of this group?"
     "Everyone here's court-ordered."
     I shrugged and walked from the outdoor dusk to the fluorescent brightness of the meeting room. I sat beside Bill at the head of the table where I could watch everyone's faces. Bill was a really famous painter. Almost anyone would recognize his name, and yet he was one of the most humble men I have ever met.
     In the early days I always sat at the back of the room, as if to bolt at any second. Now I knew no one was going to kick me out, and I liked to sit all straight and tall, as if I had the right to occupy the space taken up by my body, plus even a little extra space around it.
     The walls of the room were covered with posters and slogans and sayings. A pair of bright-pink nylon underwear was slung from the light switch. Equipment for making coffee and washing dishes lined the rear wall, with a bathroom door to the right of that. As the time for the meeting approached, the men who had been outside smoking entered the bathroom one by one. I could hear their urine as if they were in the same room.
     A really good-looking man in a blue brushed denim shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap settled into the seat on the other side of me. He reached to retrieve a coffee cup I hadn't noticed.
     "Oh, sorry. I took your chair," I said.
     "No, that's fine."
     "Really, go ahead." I half stood. "You can have it back if you want."
     "The age of chivalry is dead," he said.
     I thought about whether I really wanted to move and sat back down. His face seemed innocent and childlike, with long lashes over blue eyes. He tapped his fingers against the table, pulled out a cigarette and put it into his mouth then removed the cigarette and placed it on the table, lining it up with his cup. He glanced quickly at each person to enter the room but failed to hold the contact as if, by not looking at anyone, he wasn't really there.
     A woman walked into the room and sat down. Her dark, lanky hair was cut askew, as if she had a temper tantrum and sliced it off at random. She smashed her cigarette into an ashtray. "I'm Jamie," she said, and then she laughed as if she had said something utterly hilarious. She pounded on the table with her fist, and everyone sort of shut up.
     She said she used to like parties, and every night was a party for her. As she spoke the little room began to seem like a party too, cheerful and festive with the pink underwear suspended slightly to the right of Jamie's head. Jamie outlined the rules: People could volunteer or wait to be called on. Once called on, the speaker could address any topic as long as he focused on himself and his own feelings and not on how others had wronged him. Nobody could interrupt. She would sign court slips at the end of the meeting and not one minute before.
     An extremely skinny man with long hair, a cheerful grin, and horn-rimmed glasses spoke first. "I'm Ken. I haven't been to support group for a couple of weeks, and my family is sick of me. I'm grouchy and irritable. Tonight my kids said, 'Dad, you need a meeting.' That's it. I'm glad I'm here.'"
     Bill raised his hand as if he were a student. "In my family, I was the white sheep and my brother the rough guy. He was so bad I kept drinking for thirty years because I wasn't as bad as he was."
     I wondered if Bill liked to go to this group because nobody knew how famous he was. Nobody would fawn on him and tell him how much they loved his work or ask about his well-known marriages. He could just be quiet and invisible.
     The handsome, sweet-faced guy twisted in his seat. He looked desperately in all directions. After a long silence no one interrupted, he began to speak.
     "I'm Richard," he said. He pulled another cigarette from the packet in his chest pocket and lined it up beside the other. "I'm the black sheep brother to Bill over there. I made everyone look good. I started in real young and nothing much happened. I took a lot of mind-altering drugs, and I mean a lot. They didn't do much for me one way or the other. I got married, thinking that would settle me down, and my wife and I partied together. Then we had some problems and weren't together anymore, and, one night, I got mad and went over to where I knew she was, and next thing I knew was I was in handcuffs, and there were police all around. After about a week I realized, 'Hey, I'm not getting out of here.' A week later I went to court. I found out I opened up with a thirty aught six into a car full of people, my wife, her brother. And my own baby boy."
     Except for a certain twitching around his blue eyes, Richard's expression remained blank. Almost serene. His voice was monotone. He stared at his two cigarettes and coffee cup.
     "I was sent to Vacaville. Lots of guys in there for life, so taking life didn't mean nothing to them. Hey, there was riots in there all the time. One time this guy came at me, so I took a broomstick and jammed it right through his head. Then I got more time for that. I was paroled a few days ago, and I was wandering around down on the docks and I ran into Bill there. He told me to come here."
     The room remained silent except for the soft whirr of the heater in the corner. "I don't have to be here," Richard said. "Nothing's ever kept me where I didn't want to be. I mean I'm forced here by the court." He held up a slip of paper and most of the men nodded. "But I could be gone. I've run before. Know what I mean?"
     Richard blinked and stared down at the table. "I want to be here."

- - - - - -

     When people ask if it scares me to live out here alone, I always shake my head. "The murderers are selective," I say. "They usually only kill their own family. I'd be in more danger if I went back to college."
     Besides, when you lived that way—had lived that way—fear was so much a part of your life, you didn't believe in fear. Fear lost its meaning. Before the drugs made Danny pale and mean, he looked like a god.
     "He your old man?" Jamie stood slightly behind me, just out of my visual range. She gestured with her cigarette toward Richard's empty chair. Everyone else was outside on a break.
     "You kidding?" I turned in my chair to face Jamie. "Sorry. My ex was like that, so why am I defensive?"
     "Good," Jamie said. "I mean, if he was your old man, I'd leave, man."
     Through the years we were together, I used to say and truly believed it: "How can someone as sweet as Danny allow these ugly people to hang around with him and use him? When will he recognize how good he is?" I believed, as I always have with men, that I would be the one to bring out the good in him. At any moment he would change into the man his face promised him to be. If only I loved him enough. I didn't think I'd drown with him. And I didn't. It was only 10 years of my life.
     My 10 fertile years.

- - - - - -

     I hurried home so my grandfather's girlfriend wouldn't be mad. My grandfather was reading a yoga magazine in the easy chair beside the couch, where Sahari was curled in a blanket, as if in a nest. My grandfather asked about the support group. I told him a little. He doesn't really understand, but he's proud of my sister and me.
     "They probably wish that underwear hanging on the wall was yours," he said.
     "How was the Buddhist retreat?"
     "Shr Fu, the Master, said most of us have been mothers in this life or some other," he said. "People get married so they can fight. If they are still married after three days, they are surprised."
     He glanced toward the stairwell. His girlfriend might or might not be listening. "He said we should treat our families as honored guests."
     I scooped Sahari's warm, sweet body from her nest on the couch. She leaned into my body with complete trust.
     "Okay," I said. "I'm ready."

 

 

- - - - - -

Kirie Pedersen worked closely with Annie Dillard, Eugene K. Garber and Kelly Cherry to earn her M.A.and B.A. in fiction writing and literature. Shorter works have appeared or are forthcoming in Quiddity International Journal and Public Radio Program (WUIS), Wisconsin Review, RiverSedge, Chaffey Review, Glossolalia, the View from Here, Teachers and Writers, and others. She divides her time between Manhattan and the rural Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Her blog can be found at http://www.kiriepedersen.com.

 

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